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Fair funding for 18-year olds – but only for a few: Mick Fletcher

In policy terms one of the most interesting features of the recent announcement on funding for T levels was the decision that 18-year olds on these courses will be funded at the same rate as those aged 16 and 17 on the same or similar programmes. It makes sense; they will almost always be in the same classes as those a few months younger than them with the same teachers, the same books and the same equipment. Its so obviously sensible that those who have not followed the history of FE funding closely may well have not noticed its significance.

It is important however because it represents a first small step towards reversing what was probably the single element of a decade long series of cuts to the budget of FE colleges and 16-19 funding in general. In 2013, when Michael Gove was Education Secretary, it was announced that in future the funding for 18-year olds would be 17.5% less than those aged 16 and 17 following identical programmes of study. It was a cut that bore most heavily on the disadvantaged – those who for whatever reason needed a year longer to reach the same level as the majority of full-time learners - and on FE colleges, which contain many more such learners than school 6th forms.

This particular cut was so perversely targeted that I referred to it at the time as a ‘reverse pupil premium’; and the justification offered was cynical beyond words. An 18-year-old it was explained would have already enjoyed two years’ worth of enrichment activities and didn’t need any more. I wonder whether any of the private schools attended by the ministers who preside over this nonsense reduce their fees for 18 year olds on the grounds that they will have had their fill of sports and the cadet corps by that age and don’t need any more careers guidance or counselling support.

The lack of any serious justification for this policy is thrown into sharper relief by the decision that it is only 18-year-old students on T level programmes who will be fairly funded in future. It appears that those studying A levels or BTECs or other vocational qualifications will still face the same indefensible cut if they start a year of their programme aged 18. It surely can’t be argued that T level students are unique among their peer group in requiring extra-curricular activities for an extended period: but what other justification might be offered.

Conspiracy theorists have already taken to Twitter to argue that the funding disparity this introduces is just another step in a cynical campaign to kill off any competition to T levels. They may or may not be right, but there is probably another point to be made. Whitehall will have looked carefully at the requirements of the T level programme and concluded, rightly, that to deliver a quality programme requires a given level of resource regardless of the age of the student. They give every impression of not looking seriously at those parts of the system they have not invented themselves.

It is high time that ministers and mandarins paid more attention to those working in colleges, training providers and elsewhere in the sector and built on rather than ignored their advice. The same indifference to the expertise of who those who run institutions that produced the 18-year-old funding debacle is evident in the current consultation on applied general qualifications. Those who understand FE clearly told government they were wrong about funding for 18-year olds six years ago and DfE has only just started to put the matter right. In a better system government would listen and get it right the first time.

Mick Fletcher
June 2019


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